The most wanted man

The legend of Nelson Mandela was built years before his lengthy jail sentence catapulted him to global fame.

Photo by Gregory Fullard on Unsplash

By the time he was released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela’s name was closely identified with the African National Congress (ANC). He was South Africa’s—and the ANC’s—most famous political prisoner, not only in South Africa but worldwide. This fame is often thought to have developed in the 1970s, when the ANC and anti-apartheid movements around the world developed a campaign dedicated to his release.

But Mandela’s fame, and his symbolic status, truly came into being well before that, in fact when he was on the run from the South African authorities after the Treason Trial and before his arrest in 1962. A look back at the early 1960s suggests the Mandela legend gained a foothold in public consciousness long before his lengthy imprisonment. How did this happen, and how did Mandela himself contribute to the birth of that legend?

In the hostile and anti-black terrain of the early 1960s, while he was avoiding the apartheid security forces, Mandela became known as “the Black Pimpernel,” a reference to his ability to avoid capture, and even to leave the country, illegally, and to return, but to remain out of the police’s clutches.

Mandela and others had gone underground because they wanted to continue to pursue the struggle against apartheid while knowing that, in terms of the law at the time, most of what they were doing would be considered subversive and illegal. As Mandela reasoned, “Under apartheid, a black man lived a shadowy life between legality and illegality, between openness and concealment. To be a black man in South Africa meant not to trust anything, which was not unlike living underground for one’s entire life.” His time spent on the run was a concentrated reflection of the kind of life led by ordinary black people under apartheid, but it had a glamour not usually given to those whose illegality consisted of breaking the pass laws and other apartheid restrictions.

Although it is not clear when the “Black Pimpernel” sobriquet was first used, Mandela attributed it to the press of the time. The term conveys an image of the trickster figure, surreptitiously entering and exiting public life at will, and it became a symbolic fixture of his public image. Yet Mandela was, at this time, out of the public eye. How was it possible for him to build this public legend out of his absence from public life? Press interviews, reports, articles, and images of and about him in the period of his underground years (April 1961 to August 1962) suggest that there was more to the legend than simply the picture of a rebel. In the preceding decade, Mandela had enjoyed the attention of the media, notably of the black-readership Drum magazine. Photojournalists Peter Magubane and Alf Khumalo of Golden City Post, Drum and then Rand Daily Mail, Jürgen Schadeberg and other uncredited lensmen of Drum, had produced images of his earlier years, as when he was leading the Defiance Campaign of the mid-1950s. But the scale of media interest in him soared in his underground years, and against the background of an increasingly repressive state, a difficult time for political reportage.

One notable article appeared in New Age, a publication allied to the liberation movement. This profile of Mandela, published on  July 13, 1961, traces his political career, going back to his student days at Fort Hare. Its tone is admiring, making references to his height, vitality, and clothing: “He is a man alive with energy, a six footer whose well-cut suits fail to hide the broad chest and strong arms of an athlete.”  It is interesting that a political paper such as New Age would focus on the physical attributes of a public figure, yet in this it subverted the erasure of Mandela in the racialized public sphere of apartheid South Africa. This celebratory focus seems to be alive to the effect of appearance as a cue to public acclaim.

This affirming tone is evident in another New Age report, in its February 8, 1962 edition. The report concerns Mandela’s movements abroad. It is a striking example of how the “Black Pimpernel” idea functioned as a proxy for his growing legend. Entitled “Nelson Mandela in Addis Ababa: will return on Completion of Tour,” it gives an account of how Mandela eluded “the police net thrown to catch him in the republic.” By giving the names of prominent leaders of independent Africa, and treating them as Mandela’s peers, the article mediated public acceptance of Mandela’s leadership.

Peter Hazelhurst’s racy, action-packed report on Mandela in the Sunday Express of May 11, 1961, breathes life into the legend of the Black Pimpernel. The report, “Hideout Interview with the Most Wanted Man: Native Leader says ‘Violence is out’,” featured a small picture of a smiling Mandela with the caption “Man Under Cover.” Depicted as dangerous by the state, Mandela, in his absent figure, inhabits the pages of Sunday Express as a conscientious and formidable opponent of the National Party government. Here was an action hero who gave assurances to white South Africans—the textual target of the report—of his lack of racial enmity. The report assures the reader his amiability and, more importantly, the significance of his voice in anti-apartheid politics and his reliability as a peace broker.

Though he was on the run and publicly absent, Mandela drew attention in ways that gainsaid his enemies’ intent to circumscribe his freedom. His underground years are not only about a political life under siege but also are reflective of the exceptional ways in which this life was rendered public. His relations with the press constituted a particular and remarkable way of being public without being openly available. Without the media, Mandela’s absence would not have gained the public traction it did. Using the media to announce his presence ironically called attention to his absence from public life. While in hiding, Mandela was absent in a double sense—already absent as a black person, yet he was also productively absent as a political activist with singularly strategic capacity to contest that absence by insisting on his presence in the public sphere.

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